In this thesis, I examine technical writing in an Australian government department that has a ‗plain language‘ policy. I aim to explore whether and how government writers achieve a plain language style in complex writing. As a part of this, I examine the implications of plain language for and in government technical writing.
The rationale for the study is that, over 35 years since the plain language movement began, research on the topic remains patchy and inconclusive. There are related fields of writing research and cognitive research, but neither has contributed substantially to the way plain language is presented as an idea or a practice. In addition, the use of plain language in the law, particularly in legislation, although widespread, remains controversial.
This study examines plain language and technical (that is, legal) writing from an angle, and at a level of detail, that is rare in the literature on organisational writing. The method I use is qualitative micro-analysis of extracts from 60 pieces of government writing on taxation matters. The main analysis concentrates on 30 extracts from Australia, which I follow up with a comparison of 30 extracts from five other Anglophone taxation jurisdictions.
I use these detailed analyses to look for evidence of patterns in the way that writers approach the task of writing on complex subjects, whether their writing is 'readable‘ in the sense intended by plain language advocates, and what factors present barriers to readability. The assessment is, therefore, a negative one, in which I look for stylistic and other problems in the writing using a process similar to detailed editing and proofreading. The problems uncovered are considered for their potential to affect readability for the audience that the writer apparently intended.
Considering the complexity of the writer‘s task, it is not surprising that few documents in any of the six jurisdictions I examined exemplify a recognisable ‗plain‘ style. Indeed, I find that a distinctly heavy 'technical‘ style predominates, and that the stylistic similarities between countries are so great as to obscure most regional or jurisdictional differences in style.
More unexpected is the finding that the quality of the writing—its structure, its logic, its word usage, and mechanics—is not very high in many cases. In some cases, errors that I group together as 'logic and coherence‘ problems present as great a bar to readability as the 'heavy‘ aspects of technical style so commonly discussed in the plain language literature.
An examination of the practical literature of plain language is a second strand of this study. Using the findings from the analysis, I compare the common errors with the advice offered in a variety of guides to plain language or clearer government or legal writing. I find that, although most of the stylistic faults common in the samples are covered by the writing guides, the guides do not offer advice useful enough for a working technical writer to absorb and use easily. In addition, they rarely offer advice on the logic and coherence problems that I found to be a major readability problem in the extracts.
In drawing together the strands of this study, I find that the problems of technical writing are numerous and complex, and not merely a matter of government writers resisting, or failing to adopt, a plain style, and that providing instruction on writing in plain language cannot be a whole solution to the problems that the writers and their readers face.